Chinese students in the U.S. and American universities may face the fallout of a proclamation the Trump administration released Friday afternoon, according to some experts and students.
The proclamation limits visas for graduate-level and above students who are “associated with entities in China that implement or support China’s Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) strategy.”
“For years, the government of China has conducted illicit espionage to steal our industrial secrets,” said President Donald Trump at a press conference on May 29, adding that the proclamation will “better secure our nation’s vital university research.”
The effect on international students
Eric Hyer, a BYU political science professor who specializes in China’s foreign relations, said the policy will directly affect about 1% of the 360,000 Chinese students in the U.S. According to College Factual, there are about 107 Chinese international students at BYU. The university did not respond to a Universe question regarding how many BYU students could be affected by the policy.
Hyer said while the U.S. government has expressed concern for years about the possible threat of Chinese graduate students gaining access to critically sensitive knowledge, the sentiment largely hasn’t been expressed by universities themselves.
“If U.S.–China relations were better, this may not have taken place,” Hyer said. “This is just one other thing that indicates how U.S.–China relations have dramatically deteriorated over the past year or two years.”
The greater impact will be more indirect, targeting Chinese students in general and American universities.
“It will enhance the concern or the suspicion that people have of all Chinese students — and that’s not fair,” Hyer said. “And that’s unfortunate, because the vast majority of the Chinese people here are simply trying to get a better education.”
Helena He is a genetics and biotech senior from Guangzhou, China, and the president of the BYU Chinese Student and Scholar Association. She said she decided to pursue a degree in the U.S. because she’s always believed the U.S. provides some of the best educational opportunities in the world.
“It’s a good place to study, a good place to broaden our horizons,” she said, adding that many students see the opportunity to network in the U.S. and internationally as a huge asset of an American education.
She is concerned the president’s rhetoric about Chinese students “creating discrimination” against the Chinese community, which has seen an increase of anti-Asian sentiment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I have dear American friends and I have dear Chinese friends, and I hope the friendships can be maintained regardless of what politicians are doing,” she said. “Just be friends with each other. Politicians are politicians, political fights are political fights — but it does not need to be the fight between the people.”
The consequences of driving Chinese students away
The Trump administration’s decisions have also cast doubt on her post-graduation plans for an internship or job in her field. She said she fears Trump’s moves to limit a small number of graduate-level visas may be only the first step. “That’s causing more panic,” she said. “The distrust has already been building.”
She has various friends studying in the U.S. who are worried about their visas as well as friends back home who are debating if they should study in Australia or another country over the U.S.
According to Hyer, a decrease in Chinese students coming to the U.S. is another impact of Trump’s proclamation — a consequence he said will economically hurt many U.S. universities.
He said universities have increasingly depended on graduate students from foreign countries to staff research positions and to pay full tuition since unlike domestic students, international students aren’t eligible for in-state tuition and many scholarships.
“Many universities see foreign graduates as a cash cow,” Hyer said.
BYU professor and Hong Kong native Peter Chan has spent more than two decades working with Chinese students in the U.S. He said some reports have indicated that the upcoming school year will be the first time in 10 years that the number of Chinese students applying to U.S. universities will decrease. He acknowledged the main reason for that is the coronavirus but said another factor is a fear that the U.S. is becoming more hostile towards Chinese students.
“I have heard over and over again from Chinese academics and parents saying that they’re not so sure about whether they should really send their kids over to the U.S. now,” he said. “They are afraid that their student will not be as welcome in the U.S.”
Chan also serves as bishop of the Provo Chinese ward. He received a call from one of his ward members the morning after the visa restrictions were announced. Although the member is currently an undergraduate student and thus unaffected by the restrictions, he is still worried they could impact his ability to apply to U.S. graduate programs in the future since his father is an OBGYN doctor in the Chinese military.
“I asked him if his father had ever talked to him anything about the military or the government. And he said no,” Chan remembers. “His dad actually told him specifically, ‘Don’t get involved with government stuff. Just focus on studying and be a good student.'”
“And he is a very good student,” Chan added. “But you know, people have that fear.”
In his experience, Chan said Chinese students who attend U.S. universities often become good ambassadors of the U.S. in China and contribute to the communications between the two countries in a substantial way.
“They develop a sense of loyalty, a sense of belonging to the American institutions they have attended and also to the United States in general,” Chan said. “One thing I’m afraid this policy will do is provide a general sense of fear or prejudice against Chinese students.”
Hyer said it’s important to look at Trump’s proclamation and other actions, like cutting ties with the W.H.O. and Hong Kong, in the context of the upcoming election.
“This is typical for an election year,” Hyer said. “Historically whenever we have had an election year, there has been sort of an uptick in anti-Chinese rhetoric because no one wants to appear to be soft on China.”
Once the elections are over, regardless of who wins, Hyer said things will likely change. “Once a person is in office, they realize China is so critically important in international relations and so U.S.–China cooperation is important as the two largest economic and military powers in the world.”